The pressure of being an NGO Director


I had a long chat with Savong this morning thanks to SKYPE. Savong told me that he is fairly tired, and yet needing to do a lot of things yet to improve the school, to get the latest accounts completed and to deal with a few HR issues as well. On top of this he’s studying for a university degree and he told me that he doesn’t get enough time with his wife and children.

It made me think how lonely it must feel to be the head of an NGO. This “lonely at the top” feeling is shared by many business leaders: people who be definition must make the hard decisions and deal with the big issues knowing the buck stops with them. But in Cambodia this takes on a whole extra dimension.

  • The director is surrounded by people without a similar management background.
  • The director is the face of the organisation – and is answerable to fund raisers and supporters overseas. They experience cultural differences without the advantage of coming form a multicultural background.
  • The director is blancing the business values (tidy paperwork, Government compliance etc) against the urgent and real needs of poor people. There’s a point where decisions need to be made to support (or not support) truly needy people.

Savong has worn this for more than 8 years now, and over the past 12 months I’ve found him to be quite fatigued quite often. When holidays come, instead of relaxing his body decides – right, now to get that flu! Now’s the time to get sick!

We talked about these things today and I urged Savong to slow down – have a few days to relax – but he told me he has no time. There’s more to do, improvements to make, systems to implement.

What gives him most satisfaction, he says, is being at the school and seeing an organisation that is basically running very well. All staff have a clear role, the systems are put in place, and smaller decisions don’t always end up on Savong’s plate. He finds this satisfying.

I also think he finds it satisfying because this is where his dream started. Watching young students get free education, and knowing that they benefit from this. “I like to stand at the school and just be there,” Savong told me. “That is when I am happiest.”

Cambodia touches my heart.


What did I have to be depressed about – really? Cambodia shone a new light on my state of mind.


When I first went to Cambodia in 2004 I had been suffering a horrible bout of depression, and I describe that year as the year I fell off the rock-face of my own existence. When I was at my deepest moment, every night I’d get home from work and curl up in a foetal position on the sofa, my wife suggested I go on a journey to somewhere really different – somewhere that would shake my head around. “You need a break,” she told me. “Do something different.”  Of all the advice I’d received that year (from doctors and from a psychologist) that was the single best that had been offered.

For a few reasons I chose Cambodia which, back then was just emerging from its dark years. I don’t know what I expected – but most travel books seemed to focus on Pol Pot and the existence of landmines. Maybe it appealed to me because I saw a suitable metaphor for my own condition. How ego-centric I was.

I travelled via Bangkok and as I got in the plane to Siem Reap I felt nervous; as if somehow I would be facing my destiny.  I was looking for something in Cambodia, and I didn’t know what it was. Inside I had a feeling that could almost be described as stage fright.

We took off. A strange experience occurred just as our propeller plane flew over the border to Cambodia and Thailand’s smart rectangular agriculture gave way to the random villages and small rice fields of Cambodia. Around us at 28,000 feet were small puffy clouds. Dozens of them.

On my flight was a tour party of large mid-western Americans, and as they shared a loud conversation about the pros and cons of comprehensive house and contents insurance, I contented myself to look out the window.

And there it was. A cloud that looked like an elephant. We’ve all played “making shapes out of clouds” before – squint your eyes and you can make out a rabbit – but this cloud was better than that. It was a perfect baby elephant running with its ears pricked back, a smile on its face, little trunk thrust forward, legs running and little tail flying. An elephant.

Was I seeing things? I turned to the Amercian lady in the seat behind me and told her to look at the cloud. My cloud.

“Oh my stars!” she exclaimed. “Would you look at the baby elephant!” her friends all surged to the starboard windows and the aircraft tilted.  They’d seen it too. It wasn’t just me.

I settled back in my seat, for the first time in three years feeling a surge of contentment coursing through me. I’m not superstitious, but this – this was special. It felt like a sign and when I stepped off the aircraft I already felt as if my journey to Cambodia had healed me.

It was an extraordinary feeling; seeing the elephant. I wonder if my heart would have been closed if I hadn’t seen that little cloud. Within 48 hours I met strangers beyond my hotel and my tour guide – and in truth I felt that I had somehow stepped home.  I cannot account for this, but everything over the previous three years had felt stressed and unwelcoming, yet here was the sense that my heart could find peace.

I don’t understand the psychology behind this feeling, and I have difficulty explaining it to friends, but Cambodia touches my heart just as surely as if I were revisiting my childhood home.

We can discover quite wonderful things in our lives when we open things up to randomness. That cloud, my depression, the people I happened to meet – all these conspired to take my life on a much more interesting journey than I ever could have imagined.

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Paperwork. A big part of running a school.


There’s a certain romance about teaching students: giving them skills and encouraging them in their quest to grow and learn. It is a rewarding vocation. But spare a thought for the administrators who help every school run to budget and remain transparent and accountable to supporters or funders.

Recently Savong implemented a new accounting system for the school and for the children’s home SHEC. If we go back a few years the NGO ran like many in Cambodia, with energy and donations but without managements systems. Try getting receipts in a country where retailers didn’t have cash registers, or where vendors are so poor they don’t pay tax and have no need, therefore, for accounts.

But all that has changed now, with increasing (if I may use the word) business-fication of NGOs, accountability for supporters and registration and audits from the relevant Cambodian Government Ministries. 

So now we have a system at the school whereby all expenses are receipted (see photo above) and these receipts are scanned and sent to me in New Zealand where an accountant, Leo Liu puts together the books so we can marry up:

  1. What money gets sent each month
  2. Where it gets spent each month

This system also enables us to discuss budgets. For example in April we awarded all staff at the school a pay rise to bring the lowest positions (security watch) up to a fair wage, and to reflect the experience of the teachers.  These are still pretty basic salaries however – and my dream is to raise enough funds so we can keep paying at least slightly above average.

Neither Savong nor I love paperwork, but Savong has discovered through his own university studies in management that paperwork actually gives him a lot more clarity for decision-making.  He has also become the champion of making it happen. His strategy: delegate all paperwork to his administrators, and warn the staff – “no paperwork, no pay!” 

So far his strategy is working well. The good thing: he held a big staff meeting to explain why the paperwork is so important. “It’s all about transparency,” he told them.  

That’s one aspect of the experience I’ve enjoyed since 2004. Back then Savong was just completing high school himself, and his dream to build a school was audacious enough. But now he’s running the project not as a visionary, but as a maturing manager.  It has been excellent to watch him grow into the role he first imagined.